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Howard University School of Social Work

Howard University School of Social Work, Washington, D.C.

By Angelique Brown, MSW

Historical Context

The establishment of a social work education program at Howard took place during a critical period in American history.  A time of social and financial unrest, it coincided with the Great Depression of the 1930s and, the enactment of the Social Security Act of 1935 as well as the emergence of large-scale public social services and the beginning of the Second World War.  All of these historic developments were in addition to the reality that there were few institutions of higher learning willing to accept African Americans and only one accredited school of social work dedicated to training African Americans to be social workers.

Inabel Burns Lindsay, First Dean of the School of Social Work
Inabel Burns Lindsay, First Dean of the School of Social Work
Photo: Courtesy of the Howard University School of Social Work.

It is fitting that a school of social work with a focus on issues of inclusion and equality would become a part of Howard University. Dr. Inabel Lindsay, who became dean of Howard University’s School of Social Work (HUSSW), intended for the school to be second to none and to serve as a resource for Black students who were not welcome at other institutions.  Throughout her academic career, as a student and educator, Dr. Lindsay was dedicated to raising the question of how race and culture explained human behavior. She was an outspoken activist and advocate who provided strong leadership for HUSSW during a time of Jim Crow, overt racism, and general social injustice.  HUSSW was then and is now an institution dedicated to raising the cultural consciousness of its students while teaching them to be not only practitioners but change agents.

From Social Work Curriculum to Independent School

Howard University’s social work program began to take shape first as a curriculum of social work in the Department of Sociology which was

E. Franklin Frazier
E. Franklin Frazier
Photo: Public Domain

chaired by E. Franklin Frazier. In April of 1939 the Howard University Board of Trustees voted to create a Division of Social Work in the graduate school, separate from the Department of Sociology. As the acting director of the newly established division, Dr. Inabel Burns Lindsay wanted to ensure that the social work education made a point to include race and social status in assessing people’s capacity for change.  She envisioned a curriculum that would provide students with an understanding of how society, culture, and race needed to be considered in assessing behavior and needs of people, and in the provision of services.  Her work paid particular attention to the experiences, behavior and needs of African Americans.  The social work program was given independent status in the early 1940s and obtained accreditation for the 2-year Master of Social Work degree program in the mid-1940s.

Curriculum Dedicated to Issues of Culture and Race

The curriculum developed for the Howard University School of Social Work  sought to approach the education and training of social workers in a way that would respect culture and race. When it achieved standing as a separate school, HUSSW had six faculty members including the dean.  The faculty all made personal sacrifices by taking on heavy teaching loads, supervising and desegregating practice agencies, and taking part in community activities.  Although similar in many ways to the curriculum of other institutions which included academics, research and clinical field work, Howard’s curriculum was unique because it followed the university’s historical legacy of providing education for all regardless of race or ethnicity and ensuring that communities of color had competent professionals to staff the agencies serving them.

Continuing the Legacy

Today, HUSSW continues along the path as defined by the history and mission upon which it was founded exemplified by a commitment to social justice, activism, and community involvement from a “Black Perspective”.

For more information on HUSSW’s current projects and curriculum visit:


Gourdine, R. M., Crewe, S. E., Brown, A. W.  (2008).  Building an institution second to none: Dr. Inabel Burns Lindsay – a social work leader in the academy.  Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 18(3), 364-391.

Brown, A. W.  (2011).  Inabel Burns Linsay: Social work pioneer contributor to Practice and education through socio-cultural perspective.  Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 38(1), 143 – 161.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Brown, A. (2011). Howard University School of Social Work, Washington, D.C. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from…of-social-work-2/